The Ethical Question

Practical Wisdom
by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe
Riverhead Books, 2010, 324 pages.
Harvard University, presented by Michael Sandel
Lecture Series, 2005, 12 x 55 minutes.
Friday Night Lights
Television series, 2006–2011, 76 episodes.

The ethical question is a simple one. It can be asked any number of ways, but the best form may be the simplest—what should I do here?

It’s a question everyone can recognise, one we all answer many times every day. When we think about ethics as an idea, we tend often to be tempted by thought experiments that pose impossible moral choices (imagine you’re driving a trolley car hurtling out of control down a hill towards five workers on the track who will be killed if you hit them. Now imagine there’s a side track you can swerve onto to avoid them, but instead you will hit and kill a single worker. What should you do?). Indeed, a scholarly appraisal may well conclude there is no moral way out of some situations. And yet, as Mary Midgley reminds us, in real life, real people still make real choices, however impossible. Morality does not occur in a vacuum.

What can we learn from people’s real ethical choices? What do we think we know? Ideas about morality have extraordinary reach and purchase in our public lives. This is of course evident when we talk about censorship, free speech or Roe v Wade, but also in ways that are less obvious and more pervasive, more pernicious.

Are people basically good, wanting to do the right thing but not always sure what it is? Or are people basically vicious and only out for themselves, needing to be restrained from violence against each other by a powerful and compelling mediator?

More importantly, do either of these views reflect things as they really are? Should we say instead either that most people are good, but a few evil folk do terrible things, or the reverse? The white hat/black hat idea is a popular one intuitively held by many of us, but as Midgley again reminds us, most binaries are false. When we say either/or, we should not forget to consider and. If we are to learn anything from looking at evil, it must surely be that things are not so convenient as black hats and white hats. The greatest evils are done by ordinary people who think they are doing good.

That makes the ethical question a little more urgent. Each time we ask ‘what should I do here?’, we must have some basis for answering.

Practical Wisdom

Practical WisdomMost people want to do the right thing, say Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe. But every day, in so many ways, not only do the right things fail to happen, but wrong things happen instead. Stupid sorts of wrong things that nobody wants, yet which nobody seems able to prevent. What are we to make of this?

One example cited by the authors concerns a father who took his seven-year-old son to a baseball game. His son Michael asked for lemonade so Dad went to get some. All they had at the stadium was Mike’s Hard Lemonade, which the father had never heard of and was not aware contained alcohol (perhaps by virtue of being a university professor and breathing the rarefied air of academia, we can’t be sure.) A security guard noticed the son drinking the lemonade—the police were called in and so was an ambulance. Michael was taken to hospital but the doctors found no alcohol in his system.

But then the police put the child in a Wayne County Child Protection Services foster home. They hated to do it but they had to follow procedure. County officials kept him there for three days. They hated to do it, but they had to follow procedure. Next, a judge ruled that the child could go home … but only if his dad left the house and checked into a hotel. The judge hated to do it but he had to follow procedure. After two weeks, the family finally was reunited.

It seems that the institutions in which people practice their skills have a lot to do with what goes wrong. The people who find themselves in such situations know what they should do, but their institutional logic ‘requires’ them to do something else. As we know from the Milgram experiments, this deference to authority, no matter how counterintuitive, is a powerfully compelling force.

Practical Wisdom is perhaps best seen as an example of a response to the growing discontentment and disillusionment brought about by the potent (some would say disastrous) combination of moral relativism, neoliberal economics and creeping individualism that has taken hold in recent decades. In answer to the West’s spiritual crisis, Schwartz and Sharpe propose to counter our ‘loss of wisdom’ by reviving virtue ethics, a tradition that began with Aristotle.

Doing the right thing, the book argues, requires two things—moral skill and moral will. Moral skill means knowing how to do the right thing, moral will means wanting to do it. Moral will may be plentiful, but moral skill is in short supply. The authors put this down largely to a lack of opportunity to practice good decision-making, which they claim leads to confusion and error when important decisions have to be made for which there is no good procedure.

One particularly dramatic example of this in Practical Wisdom concerns firefighters, who for a long time kept to some simple guidelines for survival:

  1. Build a backfire if you have time.
  2. Get to the top of the ridge where the fuel is thinner, where there are stretches of rock and shale, and where winds usually fluctuate.
  3. Turn into the fire and try to work through it by piercing together burned-out stretches.
  4. Do not allow the fire to pick the spot where it hits you, because it will hit you where it is burning fiercest and fastest.

These guidelines, though far from complete, allowed firefighters to improvise as the situation demanded—a sort of ‘moral jazz’, as Schwartz and Sharpe call it. Over the years, these simple guidelines have morphed into comprehensive procedures with several dozen items or more. The book cites a study which found that the more specific procedures—harder to remember, more difficult to learn by experience—were a factor in the declining survival rates among firefighters.

Whether in combat training, hospital corridors, the courtroom or the classroom, time and again, the book argues, institutions systematically put in place procedures that limit people’s capacity to exercise judgment. Importantly, this is not because institutions are dark and evil—they too are comprised merely of people who want to do the right thing—but because of an over-reliance on rules and incentives as ways to direct people’s behaviour.

If the book has a hero, it is Luke the hospital janitor. Luke’s job description carefully sets out in dot points the myriad tasks he is responsible for—making beds and changing linen, mopping floors and stairways, cleaning toilet rooms and fixtures. But nowhere does his job description mention anything about contact with other people. This becomes important when the father of one of the hospital’s patients who visited each day happened not to see Luke clean the floor on one occasion and asked him to do it. Luke had in fact already cleaned the floor, the man just hadn’t seen him do it. Had Luke being doing the job laid out by his managers in bullet points, he could’ve refused, pointing out he’d already done it and perhaps alluding to the pile of other things he also had to do. But Luke felt he was doing a different job, reasoning that he should calm the father down and make him feel better in what must no doubt be a stressful situation, being by his son’s bedside in hospital each day. Making people feel better, Luke thought, is after all what a hospital is supposed to be for. So Luke offered to clean the floor again. Dealing with this kind of situation wasn’t in Luke’s job description, nevertheless he knew the right thing to do.

With Luke in mind, Schwartz and Sharpe propose a much simpler, almost deceptively folksy way of helping people do the right thing—let them. They argue that with just a few guiding principles appropriate to the task, it’s possible and desirable to act virtuously as the situation demands. The implication is that organisations would do better to assume positive intent on behalf of their practitioners and, rather than constrain their thinking and action with comprehensive but over-prescriptive procedures, instead operate from a set of basic ethics appropriate to their practice.

Improvising from a set of basic principles, practising the spirit of the task rather than the procedure—there are in fact a whole class of people who try to do exactly this within their own institutions, sometimes in spite of direction from above and often at great personal cost. These ‘canny outlaws’ are usually highly-regarded by those whom their practice directly affects (customers, students, patients), but they can only sustain such activity for a while before they are burnt out by the broader pressures to conform. The book illustrates some institutional examples where the principles of practical wisdom are allowed free and full effect—the results inspire and do not surprise.

Practical Wisdom is vulnerable to the charge that it doesn’t provide actionable solutions, or whatever phrase is lately favoured among freshly minted MBAs. It has also attracted criticism for oversimplifying workplaces and not taking into account the complex outcomes many organisations require. But to ask for an inventory of practical wisdom procedures or to focus too much on outcomes and consequences is to miss the point of the virtue ethics approach and the value of its differing perspective.

For instance, a virtue ethicist wouldn’t focus on assessing the positive and negative consequences likely to result from, say, getting in a fight. Nor would he or she focus on whether fighting was always right or wrong. A virtue ethicist might instead ask why you were considering getting into a fight—what is it for—and weigh the decision in this case in terms of what it would say about your moral character.

Virtue ethics is highly situational. It reasons outward from the matter at hand rather than, say, from an original position or from behind a veil of ignorance. In this view, the best hope for assuring moral action is to skilfully use our reason and judgment in the moment, rather than outsource our decision to a disinterested rulebook. The skill in question is acquired through practice and experience and the teaching of virtues of character. The highest of these virtues is the practical wisdom Aristotle called phronesis, which is knowing which virtues matter most in a given situation and how best to apply them—Schwartz and Sharpe’s idea of ‘moral jazz’.

The thought of masses of people getting through the workday by playing moral jazz is likely to be a hard pill to swallow for many. It brings into question many of the most cherished tenets of organization theory, as well as threatens to undermine other ideologies that assume rational self-interest. Yet as behavioural economists show, the evidence is becoming increasingly clear that even the most basic assumptions of rational, self-interested behaviour are often wrong-headed. And the evidence of our eyes and experience of everyday institutions might lead us to wonder if a bit more moral jazz mightn’t be a bad idea.

Perhaps the best thing about Practical Wisdom is how it gives the lie to the commonly-asserted line that ‘in an ideal world’ it would be possible to do things the right way, but regretfully we can’t because of one unassailable premise or another. But it is possible, not to mention desirable. And as the book helpfully lays out, it is often pretty straightforward, if a little uncomfortable for some, to dance to a more ethical tune.

Follow up

Practical Wisdom on
Barry Schwartz’s TED Talk on practical wisdom

Justice with Michael Sandel

JusticeIf ethical terms like phronesis, veil of ignorance, categorical imperative and utilitarian calculus seem dauntingly unfamiliar, this is no cause for alarm. Ethics, morality and justice as a subject of inquiry are taught less and less these days. Most people grow up in one particular moral tradition (in our society, usually some sort of consequentialism) without realising it or being aware that there is a rich and varied tradition of thought concerning matters of ethics.

Harvard Professor Michael Sandel has been taking students on an ethical sightseeing tour for more than 20 years—the occasional mischievous grin that slips through his otherwise composed performance is perhaps a sign of how much he enjoys watching the moment when a student’s mental horizons expand.

Sandel frames his course around a familiar question—what’s the right thing to do? But Justice isn’t so much about settling on a particular answer to this question as it is about weighing and considering the many different ways of answering it. Though he launches straight into the familiar trolley car scenario—a well-chewed shoe in the ethics course playpen—things quickly become more interesting.

Where Justice shines is in watching the students answer Sandel’s questions and then be forced to defend their argument. It is altogether too easy to think we know how to answer a simple question or reason our way out of ancient philosophical conundrums. So easy in fact that we are tempted to tick the box and move on. But Sandel does not allow his students to move on easily. Suddenly that glib response that presumably sounded perfectly smooth and unassailable inside their head crumbles awkwardly as they find themselves having to explain what they mean. Sometimes they rally magnificently, sometimes they trail off into silence. Either way, it takes things a step beyond hypotheticals and abstract intellectualising—in Justice there’s always something at stake, even if it’s simply your own credibility and coherence.

In short, Sandel asks his students to think what they say and what they would do. And we get to watch. This sort of public discussion is a welcome sight, and reminds us just how much has been lost from our public sphere over the past few decades, where things really are at stake.

Sandel’s theatre isn’t all schadenfreude either—it takes a warm and skillful hand to safely steer a discussion about morality, keeping it from crashing on the rocks of bullying, outrage and anarchy. Sandel manages to respect his students’ vulnerability while playfully but firmly declining to allow them to hide behind ignorance and prejudice. Indeed at only one point does this civility break down, and then only briefly. This is a remarkable achievement considering he soon leaves the trolley car behind and sails boldly into treacherous waters that include slavery, religion, capital punishment, racism and same-sex marriage.

If getting students to think, discuss ideas and critique each other’s arguments seems a Herculean accomplishment in today’s educational environment, it will be a source of further amazement that Sandel also gets them to read. Over twelve discussions, Justice takes us on a tour of ideas that include Bentham, Locke, Mill, Kant, Rawls and Aristotle. At each stage the students are asked to engage directly with the primary texts, from Mill’s On Liberty to Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. The whole exercise is exemplary of the best educational practices, employing Harvard’s celebrated (if sometimes controversial) case method and Socratic technique. Sandel builds towards a comprehensive introduction to ideas of justice and morality, and by the end one begins to get a sense of Sandel’s own perspective, though this is never made explicit. In any case, as stated earlier, the eventual conclusions matter less than the quality time spent at stops along the way.

Justice is an impressive course. Equally impressive is that it comes to us free, either through the Justice website or via Apple’s under-appreciated garden of educational delights—iTunes U. The course is also available through free online education provider edX. One has only to endure the occasional interruptions of unwitting self-parody from Harvard’s well-meaning marketing department (visit—it’s the right thing to do!) and the American insistence on telling you what they’re about to say in a promotional grab before saying it, though blessedly this small irritation never approaches Discovery Channel proportions. Check it out and see if it doesn’t awaken something in you—the first part is included below.

Follow up

Justice on iTunes U (Aus)
Harvard’s Justice website

Friday Night Lights

Friday Night LightsThe inspirational sports-themed drama is a well-established genre with several venerable heavyweights—Field of Dreams, Cool Runnings, Remember the Titans and the Mighty Ducks films to name just a few. In this genre, there are a few givens. The bunch of unlikely misfits will eventually learn how to play to each others’ strengths, becoming a team. Each individual will find from their sport the strength to deal with challenges elsewhere in their lives. The team will experience a galvanising moment and a champion’s spirit will emerge. The coach’s mistakes from an earlier life will be redeemed.

Enjoyment of this genre comes not from suspense—the outcome is usually known in advance, even in the case of Cool Runnings which subverts the usual ending. What this genre is really about is partaking in one of our favourite myths—the meritorious hero who fulfils their ambitions through hard work, humility and optimism and whose actions are vindicated by mentor and peers. The champions myth is a celebration of enlightened liberalism—the voluntary sacrifice of some degree of free will in the service of the good of your neighbour (who is different but still looks a lot like you), a high moral good expressed through action. Together we can make things better. Strength is in tolerance and diversity. It’s not about winning the title, it’s about winning ourselves (to applause from others). Affirming such a myth through partaking in it is a deeply satisfying emotional experience.

Friday Night Lights is an interesting specimen—it takes place within this tradition while simultaneously offering a critique of the mythology that sustains it. The grounded realism it offers derives in large part from its setting, a fictional small rural town in football-crazy Texas. Similar to the space occupied by the characters in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, Dillon is a nowhere kind of place, in the sense of isolation and what it lacks, but also in the sense that it could stand for anywhere. In a dramatic sense, Dillon is a purgatory occupied by the characters and their struggles until they can find a way to move on. This is the first clue that Friday Night Lights might not be the usual kind of inspirational sports drama.

It is clear early on that football is all Dillon has. This is not presented with the force of a good or bad judgment, but simply as an immutable fact—an unfair backdrop upon which life’s events take place. There is thus immense pressure on the high school football team—the Dillon Panthers—to carry the small town’s hopes and dreams and validate its identity. The mood of the town closely tracks the team’s performance, recklessly supportive during the good times, ominous and even violent in the event of a loss. The town’s economy revolves around football and the Panthers. Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland) embodies the best and worst of the conflict and compromise this engenders. A former Panthers star himself, Garrity now runs the Panthers boosters club. Garrity owns a car yard in Dillon which sponsors the Panthers, and has several other business interests. He simultaneously profits financially and politically from the Panthers, and uses his financial and political clout to aid their cause. Buddy thus has a large, direct and personal stake in the Panthers, a symbolism that stands for most of Dillon. Every Friday night, the whole town shuts down to watch the game at the local stadium, though by now it should be clear that this is not a game. The show has the high school protagonists sweat it out under these eponymous Friday night lights, to celebrate the champions of youth, vitality and determined optimism, and to censure the social reality that demands such champions exist.

As if to underline the point that Dillon and football are synonymous, the active and expectant observation that takes place under the stadium lights continues off the field, under the familiar glare of small town watchfulness. This is the ethical context for the show, and the dimension in which it becomes most compelling. Events centre around Eric and Tami Taylor, a husband and wife team whose actions serve as a sustained and exemplary answer to the question ‘what should I do here?’. The show kicks off with the couple having recently moved to Dillon so Eric can take up a new job as the Panthers’ head coach. Eric (Kyle Chandler) is an up-and-comer with big ideas and a down-to-earth manner, eager both to make an impression and to get the best out of his new charges. Tami (Connie Britton) is a committed educator who believes in strengthening the community and is soon working at Dillon High as the school’s guidance counsellor and, later, principal. The majority of the first season’s story arc is taken up with the couple figuring out what they’ve gotten themselves into and adjusting their dreams accordingly.

The show is helped along considerably by a talented ensemble cast who are given plenty of characterisation to work with. For example, Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), dependable and shy, lives with his grandmother. An aspiring artist, he is a fish out of water who nonetheless does his best to meet expectations of him, no matter how unfair or impossible they are. Saracen is put in as starting quarterback after the team’s star player Jason Street (Scott Porter) is seriously injured in the first episode. Though lacking the natural drive and talent of his predecessor, Saracen becomes a fine player through hard work and persistence. In many other settings, this would suffice as a morality tale. In Friday Night Lights, Saracen’s efforts are never quite vindicated—though he wins games, the townsfolk would clearly be happier with a more solid star, a proposition that becomes germane in the show’s third season. Coach Taylor, meanwhile, has become a father figure to Saracen, whose own parents are divorced. His mother ran away and his father, unable to cope with single parenthood, found an identity within the military and is serving in Iraq. Taylor has to balance his personal care for Saracen against the strength and success of the team, the wishes of the team’s financial backers and the realities of his own career. Oh, and Saracen is in love with his daughter.

Meanwhile, former star Street is now adjusting to a life where he is no longer an all-American heart-throb with an athletic future, but an all-American heart-throb with impossible medical expenses and without the use of his legs. He still commands respect and support from the people of Dillon, but his presence also provokes a sublimated resentment—an unwelcome reminder of football’s human sacrifice.

Tim Riggins, played by pouty Taylor Kitsch, is a long-haired likeable rogue who can’t keep out of trouble—girls can’t resist him. Family means a lot, though his older brother is a lost cause and his father abandoned them both. Nevertheless, Tim is nothing if not loyal. His decisions are informed by his love for friends and family, sometimes with tragic consequences. Much of his character development comes in the later seasons after school has finished and he is forced to confront the realities of life as an adult. Unlike Saracen, people have no expectations of Tim Riggins. This is a source of both pride and hurt and he oscillates frequently between them, attempting to find some meaningful self-identity while trying not to be crushed under the weight of family baggage. Among all the show’s characters, Dillon’s purgatory is perhaps the hardest for Tim Riggins to come to terms with—’Texas forever’ is a refrain that passes through several shades of meaning over the years.

Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki) is stuck in a similar rut, but this poses quite different problems for a girl, especially one who is cursed with attractiveness and popularity and relies on them to get through life. Tyra’s mother is hopelessly addicted to being abused by the worst men, while Tyra’s stripper sister gets married to Tim’s deadbeat brother—she and Riggins share an extended family as well as an existential crisis. Desperate to escape Dillon’s orbit and fearful she has run out of time change her life chances, Tyra’s senior year and Tami’s attempts to help her through it deliver some of the show’s most authentic scenes—a dramatic study in adolescence that will resonate with more than a few viewers.

One of Friday Night Lights’ most likeable characters is Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons), a bookish, socially-awkward high-schooler with a sardonic wit. Landry is one of the few people in Dillon who don’t like football, but he can’t evade its influence, especially as Saracen’s best friend. Landry’s character also develops considerably in the later seasons where, like Tyra, we see several conflicts coalesce in the crucible of adolescence. Coming of age is a prevailing theme, and several characters leave throughout the series, in one way or another. It bears a striking resemblance at times to Degrassi, another show that managed to carefully tread the path between schmaltz and earnestness. Even though many of the storylines are familiar, they rarely come across as contrived or cliche (with one questionable exception at the start of the second season).

But it is Eric and Tami who are ultimately the reason to watch. Both are canny outlaws in the sense Schwartz and Sharpe describe, skillfully navigating embedded rules and traditions to do what’s in the interest of those in their care and the town at large. This becomes especially rewarding viewing in the third and fourth seasons, where several years’ worth of storylines come to a head. Indeed, Friday Night Lights’ series length is something it has over the book and movie counterparts upon which it is based—the storytelling is more intricate and the payoffs are better. What the show gains from slowly building its bleak social and physical landscape is a heightened sense of emotional warmth, the kind of moral authenticity that other shows strive for but rarely achieve. Friday Night Lights reminds us that life on the margins is where most living actually happens, and where life’s most far-reaching choices are made. ◾

Friday Night Lights series trailer

Follow up

Profile on

Tags: , , , , , , ,